The Daily Stream: Celebrate Sixty Years Of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: The 1960s were a pivotal time for horror. With 1960 marking the debut of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," critics and audiences were starting to view horror as a legitimate genre of filmmaking. Of course, many horror movies were made before "Psycho," but the vast majority of those were campy and not to be taken super seriously. The critical and commercial success of Hitchcock's film, however, blew the doors open for more nuanced horror movies to be released.

This was the landscape in which "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" was released. Robert Aldrich's psychological horror will turn sixty years old this Halloween, and whether you have never seen it before or are eager to rewatch it, now is the perfect time to do so.

At the center of this thriller are the Hudson sisters, two former stars who had very different downfalls. While the titular Jane (Bette Davis) was a child star whose ego and inability to adapt led her into irrelevancy, her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) had her starlet status cut short by a tragic accident. Jane and Blanche now live together in a dilapidated mansion, with the former enacting her revenge on her sister for taking her away from the spotlight.

Why it's essential viewing

While it is true that the infamous rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis helped cement the legacy of "Baby Jane," this is a genuinely great movie in its own right, and far more nuanced than its current status of campy cult movie might suggest. Throughout the film, Jane and Blanche are locked in a demented cat-and-mouse game fueled solely by jealousy. Each one of them has what the other wants: Jane wants Blanche's lasting star power, while Blanche wants Jane's freedom.

It is ultimately this conflict, wanting something that somebody else has, that makes "Baby Jane" so compelling. After all, who hasn't felt that pang of jealousy seeing someone have something you don't or can't have? There it is, something that you want but is unfortunately out of reach, being squandered by someone you can't help but feel is taking advantage of it. "Baby Jane" visualizes this concept and takes it to an extreme. What if you wanted something so badly, you forcibly extracted it from someone until they broke?

Of course, we wouldn't want to actually do that in real life, but there is a certain catharsis in seeing it play out. Catharsis is what binds "Baby Jane" together, both on and off screen, in 1962 and 2022.

'You mean, all this time, we could have been friends?'

While the complete history of Crawford and Davis's rivalry is too extensive to cover here, perhaps the most important thing to know is that Davis believed that Crawford was purposefully trying to upstage her. The first incident of this is detailed in the book "Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr," where David Bret claims that Crawford's divorce overshadowed what was meant to be Bette Davis's big break: 1933's "Ex-Lady." From there, history was cemented.

It is more than likely that this was channeled into Davis's performance as Jane. After all, her reason for being so cruel to Blanche is that she felt her stardom was overshadowed by her sister. In her eyes, Blanche always had to one-up her, just like how Davis believed that Crawford had to constantly get in her way. Crawford's performance of Blanche is also steeped in her own personality, although that might not be obvious until the film's final moments. But their performances make the movie as important and memorable as it is. Their back-and-forth pettiness, anguished cries, and shattering shouts prove why they are considered some of the best actresses of Old Hollywood.

Sure, you can watch your favorite slasher again. However, if you are looking for something truly special to watch on Halloween, turn on "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" and see two actresses give some of the best performances of their careers. There's a reason it has endured over the past sixty years, and here's to hoping its legacy endures for sixty more.